Between What We Dreamed and What We Got

After all those years of stumbling around in the middle of nowhere, dealing with all the conflict and controversy of his contrary constituency, you’d like to think that Moses would get to lead the parade into the land of promise. But, alas, almost was as close as he came:

Then Moses went up . . . to the top of Pisgah . . . and the Lord showed him the whole land . . . and the Lord said to Moses, “This is the land I promised to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob . . . I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” (Deut 34:1-4)

Moses could see it, but he could not have it. The land of promise lay just out of Moses’ reach, and he died without quite making it to the promised land.

It’s an old, old story, covered in dust, tucked away in one of the Old Testament’s quieter corners. But somehow you know, as soon as you hear it, that Moses’ moment on Mount Pisgah is a parable of real life in the real world for many people today. Moses’ life ended on Mount Pisgah, somewhere between what he dreamed and what he got. He came close, so close he could see the promised land. But there was, for Moses, a wide gap between seeing his “dream-come-true” and having his dream come true. Moses lived and died somewhere between what he dreamed and what he got.

And Moses wasn’t the first. The book of Hebrews says there were others, before Moses, who had a similar experience. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . all died without “receiving the promises.” From a distance they saw and greeted the promise, but they never actually received the promises that had been made to them. I think I would rather it said, “Because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had faith, all their promises came through, and all their dreams came true.” But such was not the case. For Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there was a lot of lifelong stumbling around somewhere between what they dreamed and what they got. And they were not the last. After them, there was Moses. And Moses was not the last, either, was he? For many, many people there is this wide space between life as they dreamed it and life as they live it.

boats_9339689_xsm_400Now, of course, we should probably pause here to acknowledge the fact that, for some people, the gap between what they dreamed and what they got is on the high side, the plus side, the bright side. For many people, life has unfolded in ways far more wonderful than their fondest dreams. For some, the gap between what they dreamed and what they got is a gap that leaves them filled with wonder and gratitude for a life that has been much better than they ever dreamed life could be or thought life would be.

But, for many others, the gap is on the other side. For many, many people, life has unfolded in surprisingly hard ways. They have had to bear burdens they never dreamed they would have to bear. For so many people, there is this bewildering, disappointing, exhausting gap between what they dreamed, or assumed, or expected about life and the life they find themselves living. And what then? What do we do when life unfolds in ways we never imagined or expected or dreamed? Does the Bible offer us any help for living in the gap between what we dreamed and what we got?

There is an Old Testament passage that speaks to people for whom life has unfolded in hard ways they never would have dreamed. The passage is Jeremiah 29, which is the letter Jeremiah sent to the people of Judah who had been carried away into exile. They had been uprooted from their homeland, carried away captive to Babylon, torn from the familiar, and thrust into a strange new world. They were hoping to get back home before too long. They were dreaming of a brief exile and a soon return to normal. They even had some preachers who encouraged them in their optimism. But Jeremiah got wind of all this back in Jerusalem, and he fired off a letter to the exiles. In the letter, Jeremiah said, “Don’t believe those starry-eyed, utopian sermons about how everything will be alright real soon and you’ll be home before you know it. Don’t keep dreaming those dreams of a brief exile and a quick return, because it isn’t going to happen. In fact,” wrote Jeremiah, “you are going to be there in Babylon for seventy years. So, build a house. Plant a garden. If you don’t go ahead and live life as fully as you can in Babylon, you will never fully live life anywhere. This exile, this displacement, this situation in which you find yourselves is going to last seventy years.”

Can you imagine how that must have felt to the exiles? Think about it . . . Seventy years. Anyone who was old enough to understand the letter was pretty much assured that they were going to live the rest of their lives in what they had thought was a temporary situation. They thought this difficulty would pass, change, go away. They dreamed of life soon getting back to normal. But Jeremiah said, “No. You are up against something that isn’t going to change. This is your life.”

Jeremiah told his weary, displaced friends to come to terms with life as it was. He did not tell them that if they prayed harder or had more faith, they would be rescued from their tough situation. Rather, he just told them to come to terms with the way their life had unfolded and to live into and through the only life they were going to have—life in Babylon. Jeremiah’s medicine was not pleasant. He offered God’s children a hard dose of realism. That is a part of how we live in the gap between what we dreamed and what we got—by coming to terms with life as it is. In church, we sometimes don’t do well with coming to terms with life as it is. We sometimes tend to take the noble virtue of optimism and baptize it into a sort of “onward-and-upward theology” that is more akin to the utopian prophets of a brief exile than it is to Jeremiah’s honest proclamation of a lifelong displacement. To be sure, the church does have a gospel of hope to proclaim. But sometimes, every now and then, the church needs to hold hands with Jeremiah and help people come to terms with the truth that some of life’s difficulties, complexities, and losses are not going to fade, change, or be repaired.

I have often thought how helpful it might be to people if they could just once hear it said, out loud, on a Sunday, in a church, from a pulpit, that “some dreams just have to be given a decent burial.” That, I think, is what Jeremiah was saying to the people in exile: “There are some dreams that just have to be given a decent burial.” Sometimes life unfolds in hard ways. We find ourselves living in the gap between what we dreamed and what we got. One of the ways we live in that gap is by coming to terms with the fact that some of life’s hardness, disappointment, and complexity is simply not going to change, fade, or go away. There are some dreams that just have to be given a decent burial.

But that is not all there is to say. There is more to say than the vocabulary of realism can pronounce. There is something else—and Someone else—at work. God is not done or finished or through. For a glimpse of the radical and surprising and wonderful not-yet-visible work of God, listen to these stunning words from the Gospel of Luke: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (6:21). Whatever else this verse means, it must at least mean that, as surely as there are some dreams that don’t come true, there is also some truth that doesn’t come dreamed. There is some as-yet-unseen work of God that transcends our wildest dreams. It is the truth that doesn’t come dreamed, and it will be God’s joy to bring it to pass. Perhaps that is what Paul meant when he spoke of realities that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love [God]” (1 Cor 2:9).

To all of God’s bruised, weary, disappointed children let us say, not in a certain shout, but in a believing whisper, that there is more to life than the dreams that don’t come true. There is also the truth that doesn’t come dreamed; the unseen, unheard, unimagined truth of what God has not yet done. Amen.

This originally appeared as Chapter 3 of Beyond the Broken Lights by Charles E. Poole.

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